by Wayne M. Krakau - Chicago Computer Guide, October 1996

No, the title doesn’t indicate that I have completely given up on grammar. It’s a line in a song (from Pink Floyd’s The Wall) that always reminds me of an attitude that I first encountered when I was a programmer in the corporate/mainframe world. Note that the next line of the song is "We don’t need no thought control." It’s a scathing indictment of the British educational establishment, not the quest for ignorance that the line (and the attitude that I encountered) implies!

I had just revealed, to several more experienced colleagues during lunch, that I had begun taking classes to work toward my MBA (Masters Degree in Business Administration). They immediately laid into me with a host of derisive comments regarding the worthlessness - and even danger - in advancing one’s education while trying to have a career in the computer industry.

The general argument was: "Who [sic] would you rather hire - someone with a lot of experience but little or no education or someone with lots of education (maybe with an advanced degree) and little or no experience?" They unanimously voted for the experienced applicant. They followed up this vote with additional nasty comments about those "overeducated" academic types.

When I speculated on the existence of an applicant who had both experience and an advanced education, they responded with blank stares. It was as if I told them that gravity occasionally reversed and the earth randomly spit people out into orbit. They couldn’t conceive of such a person. They repeatedly fell back on their either/or logic.

The fact that we all worked in a department created to serve business users although none of us had any serious business knowledge did not impress them. Gathering such knowledge on an ad hoc basis, as needed, was perfectly satisfactory to them. They had no clue about why I would want to get formal training in business.

On the other side of the coin, at the same company, we were occasionally required to review incoming resumes. Usually, several of us (including the aforementioned colleagues) would each take a pile of resumes and evaluate them for possible interviews. Most of these resumes were from people with education but no experience.

These reviewing sessions were always lots of fun. An overwhelming number of applicants were convinced that real experience was only vaguely interesting, but the school environment was the peak of technological knowledge, and, therefore, was the only thing that mattered.

Their belief in the superiority of their educational backgrounds was evidenced by the goals stated in their resumes. They expected to start at a senior level and then rise to a computer management position within one or two years! In this company, that would be equivalent to getting at least six promotions. Just for comparison, the managers at that level each had seven or more years of experience - and a bachelor’s degree. They had also accumulated multiple professional training courses over the years.

These resumes went over really well with my coworkers. The collision of these two diametrically opposed views was better than fireworks. I must admit that their remarks about the resumes often had me laughing so hard I nearly injured myself. If you have ever wondered whether programmers could be creative in a nontechnical sense - this proved it.

The moral behind this nostalgic junket is to watch out for extreme views and prejudices when planning your career in computing. The real key is a combination of education AND experience.

If you are starting out as a student, try to get any job you can that will get you hands-on experience with the type of computers on which you would eventually want to work. The proliferation of PCs, and especially LANs, provides a lot of opportunity. Many firms and departments within corporations simply do not need a full-time network administrator. Opportunities abound in traditional clerical school-supporting jobs for a person who can also help with computing needs.

This type of position is a great way to sneak some computer experience onto your resume, as long as you don’t get a big head and think you are a big-time computer expert just because you’ve had a few computer classes or your professor thinks you’re hot stuff. I have rescued many companies from employees with this attitude. Those employees often become ex-employees as soon as their employers realize just how much money they’ve lost due to screwed up systems. I have written before about the temptation in the PC and LAN arenas to overestimate your expertise. Avoid this or you’ll lose your credibility - if not your job.

For those lucky enough to already be employed in the computer industry, continuing your education is the only way to stay on top. This could be the key issue when deciding who gets hired, who gets a raise, who gets a promotion, and, in this era of downsizing, who keeps their job.

The obvious channel for this continuing education is technical. Take computer classes. Get certified by the appropriate company or agency (CNI, MCSE, etc.). Self-study is mandatory just to keep up with this constantly changing business. Magazines, books, training software, trade shows, user and professional organizations, and seminars are all available to keep your skills updated.

The not-so-obvious channel is related to what type of company you work for. If you are in a general business environment like I was, an MBA, the ultimate business generalist degree, might be for you. At least take some business classes. Learning industry-specific skills is the ultimate ace in the hole. Most computer professionals are very concentrated in both their professional experience and their training. They have one very narrow technical field of expertise. Anyone with a wider view of computing as a tool to facilitate running a business has a distinct advantage.

Even the non-computer experience you may have picked up can be valuable. If, for instance, you worked in a clerical position for an insurance agency, you may have picked up enough insurance terminology and methodology to use as leverage to get a computer-related job in another area within the insurance industry. Industry-specific experience has been required for mainframe jobs for many years. That requirement is just now starting to filter down to PCs and LAN.

The most subtle ace to hold is people skills. The standard chicken versus egg joke in the computer business is "Are people with limited social skills attracted to computers, or does working only with computers cause people to lose their social skills?" This is the most polite way I can phrase this. It is usually expressed in a much cruder and insulting way. Sadly, it is not far from the truth. Many large computer installations have to assign selected employees to act as a liaison between end-users and the computing staff because they are genuinely afraid that the computer personnel will offend the users! (I was one of those liaison people.)

Anything you can do to maintain or enhance your people skills is a great asset in a job search. The ability to express yourself in English as opposed to "technicalese" is rare and valuable. Writing and speech classes are available and have direct application to many computer-related jobs. Organizations such as Toastmasters can give you serious practice in public speaking. Participating actively in a professional or social organization can polish up your social skills. I have even heard from people who took acting classes to get them out of their shell.

Some of the recommendations I have given are pretty obvious, but since I still find people getting the same kind of discouraging advice that I got early in my career, I felt that they were worth restating. Besides, remember that my motto is "Have pulpit, will preach."

�1996, Wayne M. Krakau